“I think recently the world has become a dark, corrupt, dangerous place to be. I wanted to do something totally unapologetic. It is what it is. It’s pop. It’s bright and fun.”
Mark Leeming and the playful, glamorous and subversive nature of his Bearded Brutes series has in a remarkably short space of time transformed from a small personal project into a social media sensation.
Richard Glen: So tell me how Bearded Brutes began?
Mark Leeming: My bread and butter is commercial photography. I do things like food, hospitality, restaurants. But every now and then I want to cut loose and do something different. That keeps me sane to be honest.
When you’re working for clients, you can be a little bit creative but you can’t go too overboard.
So initially this was a project just for you then?
Yeah, it wasn’t for anything in mind or anyone. I just wanted to try something different.
I’d seen these glitter beards popping up last year and thought they were cool Then I thought I wanted to do a few portraits for friends.
So I did two or three for friends and then when I posted them I got a lot of likes on Facebook, a lot of comments and I thought I wanted to do more. It grew from there.
…and then something that started off as a personal project was adopted as something that was commenting on queer identity and masculinity? Were those levels intentional?
I’ve been involved in the drag circuit a lot over the past year or so and it was something I’d never really submerged myself into. I’ve become really good friends with a few performers on the scene and it unleashes a different side of you.
For someone who is creative anyway, drags don’t give a shit. They are as creative as they want and they portray these beautiful creatures and I was in awe of it. And I wanted to do something like that, something where there is no real set rule. A bit of it was pushing that femme masculine boundary. And just because you’re a drag queen you don’t have to shave your beard off. Why not keep the structure you have now and add to that? I quite like that bit of a genderfuck thing.
Why I love this series is that it is a real celebration. You mention genderfuck and I really get a strong sense of these portraits been very much a perspective on masculinity and all the brutes being very confident and comfortable in their own skins.
With every brute, I tap into them. Even things like asking what their favourite movie is or favourite colour. What inspires you. Or if you could do anything in the world what would you do. I pick out little things they tell me so with every brute there is a thought process behind it. They are all very individual, even down to the colours I use in them.
I could have done something where I made one look like Marilyn Monroe. Or one like Garbo or Dietrich. That to me is a bit too drag because so many drags do great impersonations. I wanted to create almost a caricature of themselves, a pop art version of themselves. I wanted to carry on the drag a little but make it very personal.
The one thing that’s made me carry on doing them is that every model I’ve chosen, and some I’ve not known so it’s been a bit suck it and see when I meet them, have all been so passionate about the project. I’ve been lucky enough to pick these people who are such lovely lads and they pulled off the creativity.
I must say I am a bit jealous as you have had some fabulous models!
If there was someone I was working with who didn’t have that spark it would show in the pictures.
And everyone looks like they are having a ball in the photos. I guess though that a lot of work goes into each one.
When I shoot them I always do a multitude of poses and in the edit it’s what I feel works. I’m quite fast when I shoot them. The make up can take three to four hours and the shoot itself takes fifteen to twenty minutes.
And all the make up you do yourself?
I’m still learning! When I was 16 or 17, I wanted to do special effects and prosthetics. As a kid I’d turn my mum and dad’s kitchen upside down. There would be flour, eggs and paint everywhere. I drove them up the wall. But they proper supported me.
I came from a background of special effects make up and then I studied film and photography at university in London and it drifted a little bit. So the make up is all part and parcel.
Is Bearded Brutes the first time you’ve done work that is queer-centric?
Yes. Not for any reason. I think the timing is right. I’ve put myself out there a lot more the last few years. I used to be more of a wallflower. I’d love seeing all the shows but never dream of doing it myself. As much as I wanted to, I always held back. I wondered if I’d be good enough.
But now I think I don’t care and it’s been exhilarating doing it.
We’d love to thank Mark for taking the time to talk to us – for more you can visit him at his website or on Facebook and get ready for an exhibition of his work ‘F**k the Close Shave‘ at Kosmonaut, Manchester (UK) from 17th March